Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 11

By Igor Rotar

The average Russian thinks that the entire North Caucasus is a battle zone, only to be visited in case of extreme necessity. But this stereotype is only partially true. It is true that bursts of automatic rifle fire ring out and people are kidnapped in Dagestan and Ingushetia, which border Chechnya, and the situation is tense in North Ossetia as well, but in the western part of the region (Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeia), almost idyllic calm reigns. The stability of the situation in these republics is something which the leaders of many Russian oblasts thousands of kilometers from Chechnya could envy.

About a year ago, in Nalchik, the leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeia signed an agreement on the formation of an Inter-Parliamentary Council of the three republics. Last November, the body’s first session took place in Cherkessk.

“At first, our initiative was not understood by the center. We had to go to the very top to explain what we wanted. Take a look at the ethnic composition of our republics. The Adygeians, Cherkessians and Kabardins are very close, both in language and culture, and make up a single ethnic community–the Adygs. The Balkars and Karachais are also closely-related peoples and speak the same language–Karachaevo-Balkarian, which belongs to the Turkic family of languages. Moreover, in all three republics, ethnic Russians make up a large percentage of the population. So our alliance is natural. Although our alliance is not closed (theoretically, other republics could join it as well), it seems to me that if other republics joined, it would be transformed into a formal economic association. I am not afraid to say that our organization is clearly pro-Russian in orientation. Any talk of creating a federative state in the Caucasus independent of Russia is simply stupidity. This idea goes against the mentality of the Caucasus. For example, I have six generals in my parliament, and each of them thinks he is the only one,” Zaurbi Nakhushev, the chairman of Kabardino-Balkaria’s Republican Council (the lower house of parliament), told Prism.

Both rogue Chechen field commanders and, at times, the official Chechen authorities make persistent attempts to spread their influence to Ingushetia, and especially, to Dagestan. At the end of April, a “Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan” was held in Djohar. The Congress intends to work for the union of Chechnya and Dagestan into a single state. Chechen Acting Prime Minister Shamil Basaev was elected its leader.

“The situation in Chechnya cannot but alarm us. But in spite of that, in our view, the center is less interested in preserving stability in the North Caucasus than we are. Therefore, without putting too much hope in the Kremlin, we are taking defensive measures ourselves. Our alliance can be seen as a counterweight to Djohar’s attempts to create a Dagestani-Chechen anti-Russian alliance,” Nakhushev told Prism.

After the Ossetians (most of whom are Christians), the eastern Adygs (the Cherkessians and Kabardins) are perhaps Russia’s most devoted and oldest allies in the North Caucasus. Kabarda united with Russia back in 1557, when Kabardin princess Maria Timryukovna married Ivan the Terrible. To be fair, it must be noted that soon after the death of the first Russian Tsar, Russian-Kabardin relations were not always cloudless. Periodically, some of the Kabardin princes would go over to the Turkish side, and St. Petersburg would answer with harsh punitive expeditions in the region (General Yermolov distinguished himself by his cruelty). But significantly, today, even the radical Kabardin nationalists do not condemn the 1557 act.

Another important factor which makes a repetition of the Chechen scenario in the Western North Caucasus impossible is the low degree of religiosity of the native population. Unlike, say, Dagestan and Chechnya, where Islam has become part of the national culture, and a way of life for most of the local population, for the Adygs, Karachais and Balkars, Islam was accepted only on a rather superficial level, and often, with the addition of pagan rites.


But at the same time, the situation in the western North Caucasus could potentially be destabilized. A “time bomb” was planted back in 1922, when two autonomous republics bordering each other, each of whom had two titular ethnic groups, were created there: Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. As a result, both the Adygs, who live on the plains (the Kabardins and the Cherkessians) and the Karachais and Balkars, who live in the mountains, are divided by the borders.

Relations between the Adygs and the mountain-dwellers have always been rather tense. Karachais and Balkars periodically made raids from the mountains, stealing cattle from the Adygs. In turn, in the 16th-18th centuries, Adyg princes succeeded in making part of the Karachais and Balkars their vassals, and forcing them to pay tribute.

The situation was exacerbated when Stalin deported the Balkars and Karachais in 1944, together with the Chechens and Ingush. In the consciousness of both peoples, there is a deep-seated opinion, which has been expressed on numerous occasions by their leaders, that the consequences of this deportation have not yet been overcome completely. At the beginning of perestroika, congresses of the Balkar and Karachai peoples adopted many resolutions calling for the creation of their own national republics.

The stability of the situation in the whole western North Caucasus is determined, above all, by the political situation in Kabardino-Balkaria. First of all, this republic has a much larger population than Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeia, and consequently plays a key role in the western North Caucasus alliance. Second, (and perhaps more importantly) Kabardino-Balkaria is only a few dozen kilometers from Chechnya, and there can hardly be any doubt that forces can be found in the mutinous republic ready to support any unrest on Russian territory.

But Kabardino-Balkaria’s president, Valery Kokov, an experienced apparatchik of the old Soviet school, has succeeded, by adroitly wielding the carrot and the stick, in achieving the seemingly impossible–neutralizing both the Kabardin and Balkar radicals. One can say with confidence that today, Valery Kokov is the only real political figure in the republic, and he will have no worthy competitor, at least in the near future. “The opposition no longer exists in the republic. Everything is decided by one man–Valery Kokov,” Musa Shanibov, the former president of the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus and a member of the executive committee of the Kabardin People’s Congress, sadly told Prism. Shanibov’s admission is typical. A few years ago, Shanibov was virtually the only authoritative Kabardin leader. When the Russian government arrested him, as the organizer of the movement of volunteers to help Abkhazia, an enraged crowd surrounded the republican government building, and if they hadn’t released him in time, Kokov would certainly have been overthrown. Today, Professor Shanibov has returned to scientific activity, and, on his own admission, takes virtually no part in the republic’s political life.

No less significant is the fate of the Balkar leader, former deputy commander of the Transcaucacus Military District, General Sufian Bipaev. About a year ago, the Balkar People’s Congress, under Bipaev’s chairmanship, proclaimed the formation of an independent Balkar republic. Now, the general no longer thinks of confrontation with the authorities, and heads the President of Kabardino-Balkaria’s Commission on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples. In a conversation with Prism, Bipaev admitted that the proclamation of a Balkar republic was a mistake, provoked by certain forces in Moscow. He did not spell out exactly which forces he had in mind.


The situation is much less favorable in neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The first symptom (but a rather serious one) of the weakness of the republican authorities was the October 1997 elections for mayor of the republic’s capital, Cherkessk. Against the wishes of the local authorities, successful businessman Stanislav Derev won a decisive victory.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that this man has already become a living legend throughout the North Caucasus. Formerly a modest section chief at a chemical factory, in just a few years, he became one of the region’s richest men. His firm “Merkurii,” which produces the mineral water of the same name, and also several sorts of vodka and furniture, supplies its products to virtually all of Russia’s big cities.

Strange as it may seem, Derev does not make the impression of a typical North Caucasus “New Russian.” His speech is grammatical and his manners are cultured. Perhaps his unfinished college education has something to do with this, but it is more the result of Derev’s careful work on his own image. According to rumors, he has even hired tutors to teach him how to behave like a European businessman.

After being in Cherkessk, which is dirty and has changed little since Soviet times, Derev’s office seems like another world. The atmosphere here is like that in large firms in the West and in Moscow: busy young people in suits and ties, extremely polite secretaries. To make the picture complete, smoking is forbidden in Derev’s firm, and those of his employees who have not shed this bad habit are forced to go outside to smoke–Derev does not conceal the fact that he is copying the “American style.”

Working for Derev is very prestigious. It is the only place in Cherkessk where you can get a very decent salary by local standards (a worker gets 1500 new rubles a month), paid on time.

Stanislav Derev intends to take part in the elections for head of the republic which are set for January 31 of next year. His calculations are accurate: a “new wave” politician, he is successfully taking advantage of the weaknesses of his main rival, Vladimir Khubiev, the republic’s present leader.

Khubiev has been in power in the republic for eighteen years. But unlike many other old-school apparatchiks, Khubiev has not succeeded in adapting to new realities and continues to govern the republic by the old, pre-perestroika methods. Khubiev was not elected by the people; he was appointed head of the republic by Boris Yeltsin, with the consent of the local parliament. Today, his popularity rating in the republic is low: contrary to ethnic solidarity (Khubiev is an ethnic Karachai), 35 percent of the Karachais in the city voted for Derev, a candidate opposed by Khubiev, in the mayoral elections in Cherkessk.

But when you take local conditions into account, Derev also has a serious “weakness”: he is an ethnic Cherkessian (whose people make up ten percent of the republic’s population), and the Karachai political elite (whose people make up about 30 percent of the republic’s population) will do anything they can to hold onto power.

Stanislav Derev knows quite well what his weak spot is and is trying to win potential allies among the Karachais. The mayor has begun to build a monument to the repressed Karachais in the center of Cherkessk. This is clearly a populist political decision. Cherkessk is not a traditional home for Karachais, and it would be more logical to put such a monument up in, say, Karachaevsk.

But Derev is placing his main bets on the local ethnic Russians. They make up about 40 percent of the republic’s population. If they vote for Derev, that, together with the Cherkessians and the Abazins (another group of Azygs, who make up 6.6 percent of the population) who will undoubtedly support one of their own, the businessman’s victory would be guaranteed. When he became mayor, Derev appointed an ethnic Russian as his first deputy, and introduced a special position–Deputy Mayor for Cossack Affairs (although this category of Russians is still more likely to support Khubiev.)

Derev’s chances of receiving the support of the local ethnic Russians are very good. The businessman won the mayoral race, above all, due to the votes of ethnic Russians. The local Russians were attracted by the fact that, as Derev says, he is interested not in a person’s ethnic background, but in his qualities as a worker. Most of the workers in Derev’s firm are Russians.

Such an approach is very important for local Russians. After perestroika, the local Slavs did not feel very comfortable in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. “It keeps getting harder for us to find good work. We feel like a national minority,” local Slavs told Prism’s correspondent.

Statistical data confirm this point of view. If, in 1988, ethnic Russians made up 42.4 percent of the republic’s population, now, they make up only 37.2 percent. In principle, the reduction in the percentage share of the ethnic Russian population can also be explained by a lower birth rate, but the local Slavs themselves say that it is because their living conditions are worse than those for other ethnic groups in the republic, and therefore, their mortality rate is higher, and also, because Slavs are leaving the republic.

On the whole, Derev’s election as head of the republic would not go against Moscow’s interests in the region. Derev’s main business is concentrated in Russia, and consequently, it is unrealistic to think that the businessman would pursue a separatist policy if he comes to power in the republic. It is hard to suspect Derev–a pragmatic businessman–of Cherkessian nationalism.

But Derev’s election could lead to complications in the republic. In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, there is a secret rivalry between the peoples of the Adyg ethnic community (Cherkessians and Abazins) and the Karachais. The Russians are split, or at least, do not represent a united force. Derev’s victory could once again provoke demands that Karachai pull out of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. It is significant that the Karachais and the Balkars reacted cautiously to the formation of the Interparliamentary Union between Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeia. The largest Karachai organization, “Alan,” even charged that such an alliance violates the Russian constitution. Clearly, the Turkic-speaking Karachais and Balkars fear that in practice, the Union would be transformed into an Adyg alliance. If Derev is elected, such fears would become more well-founded, since the leaders of all three republics in the Union would be Adygs. And there can be no doubt that rogue Chechen field commanders would try to exploit the trouble, and that they would undoubtedly support the Karachais (as already happened when the Balkars declared the formation of an independent Balkar republic).

But in any case, the Kremlin has no reason to fear a repetition of the “Chechen scenario” in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The great distance between Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Chechnya makes the Dagestani variant, where Chechen fighters regularly come to the aid of their allies on the other side of the border, impossible. Another important stabilizing factor is the large percentage of “Russian-speaking” people in the republic, who traditionally play the role of a buffer between the Cherkessians and the Karachais.


Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.

Translated by Mark Eckert